William Hall 1912-19: Woolwich Arsenal at Highbury

Last updated: July 2008



Even Henry Norris, writing in the West London and Fulham Times was admitting by late January 1913 that Woolwich Arsenal FC were certain to go down.  He went on to comment that, “Nothing short of miraculous can prevent it”, not choosing to add that if there was any one person who could have taken action to prevent the team’s current desperate situation, it was him; not now, of course, it was too late, but last year, perhaps.  What William Hall thought about Woolwich Arsenal descent to Football League Division Two was not recorded.  Perhaps he, like Norris, thought that it was the price the club had to pay for its poor support over many seasons, that they had not been able to improve.  They had other things on their plate by this time.  Both men were very cagey ever afterwards about the search for a new ground for Woolwich Arsenal - when it began, when it finished, when negotiations with the owners began - you know, all the things everyone most wanted to know! 


Membership of the FL management committee brought commitments beyond attending meetings.  As a member, William Hall was expected to be present and also, I think, to take part in the picking of the team, at the annual match between the English and Scottish football leagues.  However, his first match as a management committee member - Saturday afternoon 1 March 1913 at Hampden Park - was hijacked, at least in terms of publicity when, the weekend before, the news leaked out that Woolwich Arsenal FC were about to sign a lease on a site owned by St John’s College, in Highbury north London.  Representatives from Tottenham Hotspur and Clapton Orient invaded the scheduled management committee meeting held in London on Monday 24 February 1913, demanding that their objections to the move be heard.  They then followed the management committee to Glasgow the following Friday and forced them to hold an emergency meeting at midnight on Friday 28 February to discuss their request to forbid the move.  In my analysis of the move to Highbury I’ve suggested that having a director on the FL management committee was a very fortunate thing for Woolwich Arsenal FC - in fact, a little too fortunate to be completely coincidental.  And certainly it was handy, when the management committee were coming under pressure, for William Hall also to be at the midnight meeting putting Woolwich Arsenal’s case.  He was very anxious, afterwards, to assure those who were suspicious of his influence on the outcome, that he had absented himself while the rest of the management committee members had come to a conclusion on the FL’s role in the affair.  Their conclusion was a very satisfactory one, from Woolwich Arsenal’s point of view: William Hall had done his work with them well.  On the Saturday morning when they should have been focusing on the international match, the management committee instead issued a statement declining to interfere in Woolwich Arsenal’s move, and stating their opinion that the large population of north London could easily support three football clubs.  Spurs and Clapton Orient did try to get enough signatures from FL clubs to force an emergency meeting of the full FL to discuss the matter; but they didn’t succeed.


Almost as soon as Hall was back in London, on Tuesday 4 March 1913, the directors of Woolwich Arsenal FC held a dinner at the Connaught Rooms in Holborn, to which the press were invited to hear a series of statements on the club’s future.  Despite the haste with which the dinner had been booked, all the directors were there.  Henry Norris, as usual on these occasions, did most of the talking; and he made it very plain that if it hadn’t been for the leak the week before, the news of the move would have remained a secret until the Woolwich Arsenal had the keys to their new door.  If Hall had disagreed with Norris’ policy here, he had not been sufficiently bothered about it to get Norris to adopt a different attitude.  When Norris had finished his speech, William Hall joined him in taking questions; and he was the one who thanked the press for the support they had given the club while it had been based in Woolwich.


On Thursday 13 March 1913 Henry Norris had a slight break from the upheavals and problems of Woolwich Arsenal FC.  On that night, at Fulham Town Hall, Henry and Edith Norris held the biggest social event they organised in their public careers.  William and Kate Elizabeth Hall were amongst several hundred guests that night.  It was the only occasion on which the Norrises brought together people from all the social areas in which they were involved, so acquaintances from the freemasons met contacts from football (although only one footballer was invited - Vivian Woodward who was an architect and played as an amateur), and people known to the Norrises through local government mixed with senior employees of Allen and Norris. 


William Hall will already have known fellow guest Archibald Leitch, of course: Leitch had designed the stand at Craven Cottage; he had already been contracted by Hall and Norris to design the grandstand and three earth banks at Woolwich Arsenal’s new stadium in Highbury.  An uprising from the local residents did cause the governors of St John’s College to hesitate for several weeks before signing the lease, but by the end of April 1913 they had decided to stick with it.  By the terms of the lease, William Hall and Henry Norris were personally responsible for payment of the rent and performance by the club of various covenants about Sunday football, drink and betting.  In later years Norris made a great deal of noise about this burden, but according to Fred Wall’s memoir (written in 1934) it was common practice at that time for football club directors to undertake personal guarantees of this sort for rent due from their club.   They would only have to pay the rent out of their own money if the club had defaulted; and in those circumstances the rental would be the least of their worries.


Woolwich Arsenal FC were relegated from Football League Division One at the end of season 1912/13; however much it might have been expected for months, it still must have been painful when it happened.  Both Norris and Hall were there for the last game, which was watched by the usual very low crowd.  A group of Woolwich Arsenal supporters based in Rotherhithe organised a farewell evening, mostly for the players, although trainer George Hardy also went along.  William Hall was invited, and the Kentish Independent described him as a man “held in great esteem” locally, something it did not say about Henry Norris; however, Hall sent apologies to the organisers of the farewell - I think he was being tactful, though it could have been a gesture of solidarity with Norris  - Henry Norris hadn’t been invited.


There was not much time to grieve over the end of an era though, as work began preparing the Highbury site for football as soon as the club’s lease was signed.  William Hall probably left the choice of building contractor to Henry Norris, with his experience in building matters, or possibly to Archibald Leitch, though he will have known the firm that was chosen, at least by repute.  Humphreys Limited were a big company with a world-wide reputation, specialising in the construction of iron- and steel-framed buildings.  However, they did not come cheap and they knew their worth: Arsenal had to agree to pay them a down-payment in cash followed by a guaranteed proportion of the gate money until the debt was paid off; they also insisted that Hall and Norris personally acted as guarantor of the full amount payable, a sum of over £50,000. 


Work began at once but here were delays as there always are and despite everybody’s best efforts, the stadium wasn’t completely finished until well after the start of season 1913/14.  Norris’ account of the close season 1913 emphasises the part he played - you’d describe it today as project manager - and for once he probably isn’t exaggerating the amount of effort and the number of hours he spent at Highbury.  Norris’ accounts of the period hardly mention William Hall at all and I think that’s probably a fair reflection of the division of labour on the project; unlike Norris, Hall didn’t have a partner in his business to take up the slack.


On Thursday 8 May 1913 at the Connaught Rooms in Covent Garden, William Hall represented Kent Lodge number 15 at the annual fund-raising event for the Royal Masonic Institution for Girls, the freemasons’ girls’ school.


At the AGM of the Football League on 26 May 1913, Hall was one of the management committee members having to seek re-election.  His re-election went through without any trouble (serving members were usually re-elected) but after the formalities had been dealt with, Hall and Henry Norris reaped the whirlwind of Spurs’ and Clapton Orient’s anger at the way in which the FL had decided not to prevent Woolwich Arsenal FC’s move to north London.  The two club’s representatives at the AGM insisted on having a debate on the dual control of clubs - that is, the same man being a director of two different football clubs - with particular reference to Fulham FC and Woolwich Arsenal FC, now in the same division.  The signing of Roose by Woolwich Arsenal after he’d been on the verge of signing for Fulham FC (December 1911) had been widely reported in the press, though it was not really that incident that Spurs and Clapton Orient were annoyed about. The debate got very heated and Henry Norris got up to object to one particular speaker describing dual control of clubs as “a scandal”.  Norris offered to resign from the board of directors of one of his two clubs.  Hall said he’d do the same.  And in the following week they both formally offered their resignations from Fulham FC.


I don’t know how far Norris and Hall expected the sequel, but their intention to resign provoked consternation rather than relief at Fulham Football and Athletic Company.  At its AGM on Friday 27 June 1913 the shareholders who attended passed a resolution to go to the Football League asking that the two men should be allowed to continue to serve as directors.  The FL agreed to the request; the fact that the dual control of clubs had not been on its AGM’s official agenda did suggest that the FL hierarchy hadn’t wanted the subject discussed.  Henry Norris continued to be a director of Fulham FC.  However, William Hall seems to have been doing some thinking since the Football League’s AGM, about the questions raised by the unofficial debate. He seems to have decided that it was not appropriate for him as a member of the management committee to continue to be involved with two football clubs; the fact that they were now rivals in Football League Division Two may have weighed with him.  He resigned as a director.


At the date of his resignation Hall still owned shares in Fulham FC; but at some point between July 1913 and July 1915 he sold all the shares he owned.  I couldn’t find a record of the sale in the company records at Companies House.  I found a record of the purchase by William Gilbert Allen on 26 November 1913 of 202 shares; the record said they belonged to Henry Norris.  However, a series of later share-listings showed that Norris had not sold any of his shares, so I think the record has got it mixed up and the 202 shares had been William Hall’s shares.  If I am correct, from that date William Hall had no shares in Fulham FC, only in Woolwich Arsenal FC.  He certainly did not appear on any share-listing after July 1915.


Though during the summer of 1913 Henry Norris was doing most of the to-ing and fro-ing to Highbury to manage the preparation of the new football ground, Hall did his share.  When a reporter from the Islington Daily Gazette went to Avenell Road in early September (after the first matches of season 1913/14) to be shown over the building site, he found both Henry Norris and William Hall having tea and buns in something he described as “a little shanty” with manager George Morrell and the site foreman.  Henry Norris gave the reporter his tour and an interview while Hall carried on with the site meeting, and then Norris and Hall went home together in Norris’ car.


On Monday 27 October 1913 Jock Rutherford was signed by Arsenal.  Rutherford’s availability had excited a lot of interest and it came as a surprise to the press that he’d chosen Arsenal.  In 1927 Norris shed some light on why Rutherford did so by admitting that a player had been paid £200 in addition to the allowed signing-on fee; the player wasn’t named but Rutherford is the most likely candidate.  Of course, Hall had been involved in paying a player more than was allowed by the rules before (December 1911); and in 1927 Norris didn’t specifically say where or who the £200 had come from.  It isn’t very likely, though, that Hall didn’t know anything about Rutherford being paid it, and this time he had to square the payment in his conscience with being a member of the management committee of the organisation whose rules it broke.  He seems to have managed to live with it.  And nobody found out until Norris told the FA.


Later in the autumn Woolwich Arsenal Football and Athletic Company prepared a new share issue, the first since that of December 1910 and also the first since the move. Shares went on sale in December 1913 and 745 new shares were bought, at £1 each, a sizeable contribution to the heavy costs of setting up the new football ground.  A second share issue followed, in October-November 1914, an unfortunate bit of timing as crowd levels had already been affected by the outbreak of war; however a further 276 new shares were sold.


In Woolwich Arsenal’s first season at Highbury, William Hall (unlike Henry Norris) went to some trouble to establish some links between the club’s directors and the residents and businesses of Islington.  On Thursday 23 April 1914, several members of Islington Trades Council were at Highbury at Hall’s invitation to see Arsenal 2 Grimsby Town 0.  After the game, Hall and Norris had had a long talk with one or two of the Council about problems the club had been having printing its programmes, which were produced locally. Arsenal were still in with a shout of promotion at this stage, though it would have to be a loud shout as they were Bradford Park Avenue, their main rival for the second promotion spot, had a far better goal difference; in this game they’d needed to score at least 4.  Arsenal missed promotion on goal difference - a nasty twist to the end of the first season at Highbury.  Crowds had been very good, however, justifying the decision Hall and Norris had made to move the club to north London. 


Then came the war; and William Hall, even more than Henry Norris, disappears from view, at least as far as Arsenal FC is concerned.  He took no part that I can discover in recruitment drives; he didn’t help in the formation of the Footballers’ Battalion; he hardly ever went to a football match.  I have to confess that I haven’t researched Hall’s war years except from Arsenal’s point of view.   So this is a guess but it does explain his disappearance: I think he was far too busy - his business was far too busy.  Shell covers were made of lead.  Although he probably wished as much as anyone that the war would end, Hall probably did very nicely out of it in business and financial terms. 


Season 1914/15 was overshadowed by the war and arguments about whether professional football should continue under the circumstances.  As the end of the season approached, however, the football authorities announced that there would be no more professional football seasons while the fighting lasted - a decision not unexpected but for Arsenal, with its big debts, a disaster.  Some hard decisions had to be made.  Gates had been poor all season (not just at Arsenal FC) and even before the end of the season Norris and Hall had had to take steps to try to reach an understanding with the club’s main creditors, Humphreys Ltd in particular.  They issued the annual report of Arsenal Football and Athletic Company on 13 March 1915, some months before it was actually due.  The accounts showed that Hall and Norris had both increased their loans to the company to £4481, to ease the strain of all the interest payments on its loans.  It won’t have been Hall, however, that persuaded Walter Middleton to buy 100 shares in the club and become a director: Middleton was a friend and political ally of Norris’ in Fulham.  And it was probably Norris, with his background in legal/financial negotiations, who approached the creditors with a plan to prevent debt proceedings in the courts.  As soon as the matches had finished, all the club’s playing and coaching staff, including the manager, were made redundant.  And during the summer, Henry Norris was very active in the setting up of the London Combination, which ran an expenses-only league in the city and south-east until the end of season 1918/19; this league guaranteed a small regular income for Arsenal while the fighting lasted.  Although Hall became involved in the management of the London Combination in the 1920s, he took no part in setting it up in 1915.


In later years Henry Norris made a great deal of the burden that fell on him and William Hall personally when professional football ceased; though I maintain that it fell harder on Hall than on Norris, as Norris was so much wealthier. 


And so the war went on.  For most of the war, the freemasons tried to keep up their regular meetings, and even went on with their regular dinners until 1917.  On 15 April 1916 William Hall joined Kent Lodge number 15's Chapter; he continued as a member until January 1925 when he resigned.


Arsenal Football and Athletic Company issued another annual report on 1 July 1916 which showed that during the 15 months since the last one, the mortgage taken out in 1910 on the lives of George Leavey, Henry Norris and William Hall had had to be given up.  Hall and Norris had increased the level of the money they had loaned the club, but this time they did not both lend the same amount; Norris was owed £7196 by Arsenal, and Hall was only owed £6154. 


And so the war went on.  William Hall’s chances to watch an Arsenal game were so few at this stage that Islington Daily Gazette’s sports reporter Arthur Bourke (writing as Norseman) noted it in his weekly column when Hall did see a match.  So Bourke wrote that he’d seen both William Hall and his brother-in-law George Davis at Arsenal 3 Chelsea 0, played on Saturday 17 February 1917, “a rare thing these days”.  They’d shared the directors’ box with journalist JJ Bentley, and FA secretary Fred Wall.  Before the kick-off a collection was made for money to buy little gifts for the soldiers in the Footballers’ Battalion, which was now now on active service. 


I know so little about how William Hall spent the first World War that I don’t know where he was a military volunteer, or how long for.  Writing up his report on Arsenal 2 West Ham 1, played on Saturday 21 April 1917, Bourke mentioned seeing William Hall, describing him as ‘Lieutenant’, he hadn’t given Hall a military rank when he wrote about seeing him at Highbury in February.  Again, Fred Wall was at the match.  The extent of Arsenal’s financial problems can be gauged from this game: West Ham had just won the London Combination for season 1916/17, but the crowd able to get to see them at Highbury was a mere 7000.  It seems that by 1917 Hall did have some spare time.  For the first time in two years, he was able to get to two matches in succession.  He was at Highbury on Saturday 28 April 1917 in a crowd of 5000 for Arsenal 4 Crystal Palace 0, the last game of the season.  Hall and Henry Norris (who’d come to the game very late) then treated the Arsenal squad to dinner at the Holborn Restaurant.


Hall and George Davis and George Allison were all at the first game of season 1917/18: Arsenal 2 QPR 0 with a crowd of 6000.  If Hall seeing a match had been an unusual event for quite some time, both Hall and Norris being able to get to the same match was even rarer, but they managed it on Saturday 29 September 1917 for Arsenal 0 Chelsea 1.  Then Hall at least was not mentioned by Arthur Bourke as attending a game at Highbury for the rest of season 1917/18.


The normal expectations of the Companies Acts that limited companies would produce annual reports every 12 months had more or less broken down by now, but Arsenal Football and Athletic Company produced one on 31 December 1917, showing figures for money owed by the company not so very much worse than the last one.  So at least Arsenal’s financial position was stable.  Another annual report was published not so long after that: 5 March 1918 and again the club’s financial situation was grim, but stable.


By the start of season 1918/19, the last great military push of World War 1 had been going for several months, and there was a general feeling that the fighting was going to end very soon.  On Saturday 14 September 1918 Arthur Bourke saw both William Hall and Henry Norris at Arsenal 4 Millwall 0 amongst a crowd of 5000 which Bourke described as small.  As work on munitions began to slow, the biggest crowd for several years - 30000, more like peace time - was at Highbury on Saturday 12 October 1918 for the north London derby Arsenal 3 Spurs 0.  Arthur Bourke saw William Hall at this match too, with George Davis and Charles Crisp.  The directors of both teams each put £10/10 into a fund to set up a memorial to Islington’s first VC, Sergeant Train.  Sgt Train had been invited to the game but was still too ill to attend; but his wife was there.


The next match Hall attended was the first at Highbury after the Armistice: Arsenal 1 Fulham 3 on Saturday 16 November 1918.  Again, Hall went with his brother-in-law George Davis, and Henry Norris went as well.  They welcomed Sgt Train VC, now recovered from his illness.  Hall and Davis also went to Spurs 1 Arsenal 0 on Saturday 7 December 1918; Spurs were still having to play their home games at Highbury while White Hart Lane was in use by the military.


I presume that Hall had more time available now than for several years, and was able to attend the first meeting of the Football League management committee since 1915.  This was on Monday 6 January 1919 in Birmingham and really fired the starting gun for the reconstitution of professional football after World War 1.  The FL management committee met a delegation from the Southern League to discuss if and how the two leagues should merge; they spoke with representatives of the newly reformed Player’s Union, and discussed Blackpool FC’s proposal to extend the length of the football season to accommodate more Saturday games.  The management committee was able to make one decision at this meeting: none of its members were in favour of a merger of the FL and Southern League.  However, there were so many items on this meeting’s agenda and such important decisions to be made, that all the members of the Football League met on Monday 13 January 1919 in Manchester, amid a mass of advice from the FL members and the press about what professional football should look like post-war. 


I wonder if William Hall broached the subject at either meeting of what clubs should be in FL Division One when professional football started up again in September?  He didn’t really have to, to get Arsenal’s point across: the Athletic News, always very close to Football League management committee opinion, had already begun a campaign to have (for different reasons) Chelsea and Arsenal in Division One for season 1919/20.  In its article on the subject on the morning of the second meeting the Athletic News acknowledged the burden Arsenal’s debts had placed on William Hall and Henry Norris for so long, calling them “sportsmen who never show the white feather”.


The meeting on Monday 13 January 1919 voted against the extension of the football season - a decision Athletic News found quite incomprehensible; the more so because on the following day, Tuesday 14 January, an informal conference of the Football Association, the Southern League and the London Combination had voted in favour of Blackpool’s proposal.  I presume Hall went to the informal conference, which also voted against an amalgamation of the FL and the Southern League, a decision which the Athletic News felt made inevitable an increase in the number of teams in FL Division One, thus giving places to Chelsea and Arsenal just as it had been advocating.


Clubs wanting to get into an enlarged FL Division One were not waiting for a formal vote on the matter before beginning to lobby for votes.  By the end of January 1919, Arsenal had printed a circular supporting the argument Athletic News had already published, that the club should be returned to FL Division One to help it pay off its debts.


On Saturday 22 February 1919 William Hall will have been in Birmingham again for another ‘first since the war’: the first match between the English and Scottish football leagues, which had ended 3-1.  Before kick-off, representatives of both the leagues held some discussion on the perennial problem of how to deal with cross-border player transfers; Hall may have been involved in these.


On Monday 10 March 1919 Hall will have been in Manchester, where all the members of the Football League were meeting again to make the decisions necessary to set up professional football for season 1919/20.  As a management committee member it would have been inappropriate for Hall to represent Arsenal at this meeting; and anyway, no one was going to take that role from Henry Norris.  So it was Norris who made the speech arguing for Arsenal’s return to FL Division One.  Arsenal were elected to FL Division One with Chelsea; and more acquaintances of Hall’s joined the FL with West Ham’s election to FL Division Two.  The representatives changed their minds about an extended football season and voted to increase its length into August and May.  And a new way to divide gate money between home and away teams was agreed, based on the one the London Combination had been using, where the spoils were divided 80/20 home/away.  Hall must have been delighted with the outcome; though it was Henry Norris (apparently speaking on his own account not on Arsenal’s) who wrote to the Athletic News’ editor J A H Catton thanking him for his newspaper’s support of Arsenal’s cause.


Two days later (Wednesday 12 March 1919) there was a charity match in London: RAF v George Robey’s XI and then William Hall was chairman at a freemasons’ meeting and dinner at the Connaught Rooms attended by many freemasons who were involved in football management. Hall received a lot of congratulations on Arsenal’s return to FL Division One.


Although the big decisions had been taken, the details of how football would operate still needed a lot of attention, so there was another meeting of the FL management committee on Monday 24 March 1919 in Manchester; then there was another one on Monday 14 April which voted for a rise in match ticket prices to 1 shilling per man standing.  After such a busy period, with so much travelling, it was not perhaps surprising that Hall caught the dreaded flu.  He was too ill to attend the Victory Cup tie in which Arsenal were knocked out of the competition by Fulham, on Monday 7 April 1919.  He had recovered, though, in time to attend a lunch given by the directors of Nottingham Forest for the FL management committee members on Saturday 10 May 1919, before Forest’s match with Everton.  He was also able to play a full part in assembling a team at Arsenal for season 1919/20.  We’ll go into another file for that, though.








Copyright Sally Davis July 2008